Thursday, November 26, 2020

#2,522. The Addiction (1995)

Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find”. 

This is a line spoken by Kathleen (Lili Taylor), the lead character in Abel Ferrara’s 1995 horror film The Addiction who also serves as the movie's narrator. A graduate student majoring in philosophy, Kathleen’s world is turned upside-down following a chance encounter with a vampire (Annabella Sciorra). As a result of being bitten, Kathleen herself begins to change, and before long her thirst for blood is unquenchable. 

At first energized by this transformation, a brief meeting with another vampire named Peina (Christopher Walken, in a brilliant cameo) soon has Kathleen seeing her “condition” in an entirely different light. 

Shot in stunning black and white, The Addiction is a fascinating take on the vampire mythos, treating those afflicted with vampirism as addicts (equating their desire for blood with alcoholism or drug dependency) while at the same time drawing comparisons between the so-called “evil” inherent in vampires and that of humanity itself. At one point, Kathleen attends a lecture about the My Lai Massacre, and later visits an exhibit featuring images from the Holocaust. With moments such as these, Ferrara seems to suggest that vampirism itself isn’t the root of evil; it's merely a magnification of the fundamental evil that is 
always lurking - dormant or otherwise - within mankind’s psyche. 

By way of his thoughtful approach to the material, coupled with a kinetic visual style, Ferrara has fashioned a vampire movie with an art-house mentality that also features plenty of blood and carnage, creating what amounts to a hybrid genre film likely to impress academics and horror fans alike. 

This, coupled with an extraordinary performance by Lili Taylor, has me believing that The Addiction is one of the finest vampire flicks I have ever seen. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - don’t waste another minute… see it now!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Lucio Fulci

Three from the Godfather of Gore (Over the course of my 2,500 Movie Challenge, I covered several Fulci films. To read these reviews, click here).

1.The Black Cat (1981)

The first half hour of The Black Cat features one incredible scene after another! There’s a creepy pre-title sequence in which a guy, driving down the road, spots a cat in the back seat of his car and crashes into a parked vehicle (his head smashes through the windshield, and the car bursts into flames). Next, we visit the home of Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who is resting comfortably in a chair, listening to audio tapes, when he’s suddenly and viciously attacked by a black cat. From there, we join American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer) as she’s walking through a cemetery. She descends into an open crypt, where she finds numerous skeletons (from the way the remains are positioned, it’s obvious that, centuries ago, this area functioned as a torture chamber). Moments later, the action shifts to a small boat, where Maureen (Daniela Doria) and her boyfriend are making out. Interrupted by another boat that happens by, the boyfriend suggests they go somewhere a little more private… with tragic results. All of these scenes are great, yet as I sat watching them, it suddenly dawned on me: I had no idea what the hell was going on! As The Black Cat progressed, it started to make a little more sense: every tragedy centered on Professor Miles and his pet cat. Though I was admittedly baffled when David Warbeck, playing a Scotland Yard Inspector, was randomly attacked by a black cat. Or maybe it was three black cats? I can’t say for sure. But, you know, the seemingly incoherent story didn’t bother me, because The Black Cat featured plenty of that patented Fulci gore I’ve come to love, and many scenes, whether or not they made a lick of sense, were so damn cool that my comprehension of it all became secondary. To be fair, it does come together in the end, but even if it didn’t, I would have walked away from The Black Cat smiling ear to ear.
Rating: 8 out of 10

2. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Several children have been murdered in the small village of Accendura. As the police work diligently to track down the killer, an out-of-town reporter (Tomas Milian) and a pretty socialite (Barbara Bouchet) do a little investigating of their own, hoping to find out who is committing these heinous crimes, and why. Don’t Torture a Duckling is Fulci’s take on the Giallo subgenre, and it’s a good one! The mystery surrounding the killings becomes more puzzling with each subsequent murder, and there are hints that black magic might figure into it all. While not as consistently violent as some of the director’s later films, Don’t Torture a Duckling does feature a handful of bloody moments, the most shocking of which occurs when La Magiara (Florinda Balkan), a suspect in the killings, is cornered by five villagers and beaten with chains. Like most giallos, there are plenty of potential suspects, and Fulci does a masterful job juggling them all, keeping us guessing right up to the very end. A word of warning, though: there is a very uncomfortable scene towards the beginning of the movie, in which a naked Bouchet practically seduces an adolescent boy. But if you can somehow overlook this bit of creepiness, you’ll find - as I did - that Don’t Torture a Duckling is both a strong Fulci film and one of the best giallos of its era.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

3. The Psychic (1977)

Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill), a clairvoyant, experiences visions of a brutal murder that occurred sometime in the recent past. Before long, these visions lead to the discovery of a skeleton, which was buried in the wall of an estate owned by her new husband Francesco (Gianni Garko). The remains are those of a 25-year-old former model that Francesco once dated, so, naturally, the police arrest him and charge him with murder. But Virginia is sure her husband is innocent, and hopes that, with the help of her somewhat confusing visions, she can track down the real killer. With Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic, Fulci proved he was more than the Godfather of Gore; both of these giallo-esque films are well-paced, with intriguing mysteries at their core. In addition, The Psychic makes great use of its lead character’s extrasensory abilities, showing us her entire vision at the outset and slowly revealing the mystery behind it, scene by scene. Jennifer O’Neill is very good as Virginia, and Gabriele Ferzetti (L’Avventura, Once Upon a Time in The West) turns up in a small but essential supporting role.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Thursday, November 12, 2020

#2,521. Black Narcissus (1947) - The Films of Michael Powell

Black Narcissus was filmed entirely within the confines of England’s Pinewood Studios. Watch the movie, and I guarantee you’ll find this tidbit of trivia as amazing as I did. With its gorgeous colors and setting high atop the Himalayan Mountains, you'd swear the film was shot on-location in India or Tibet. 

This is but one of the movie’s many strengths. Black Narcissus is a beautiful, frightening, incredibly moving motion picture, with flawless performances and two skilled filmmakers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) at the helm, turning out what I consider to be their masterpiece. 

The story centers on a group of Anglican nuns who have been invited by the Rajput (the ruler of the local Indian community) to establish a school and hospital to serve his people. Given a building (a former harem) situated on a sheer cliff in the Himalayas and under the guidance of newly appointed Mother Superior Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the sisters get to work immediately. 

Warned by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an aide of General Dilip Rai (played by Sabu, star of - among others - 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad), that the customs in this area of the world are different from anything they may have experienced before, Sister Clodagh and her order nonetheless are determined to make a go of it. It isn’t long, however, before troubles with the locals, combined with the beauty of their surroundings, cause the sisters to lose sight of their objective, and question whether they made the right decision taking up residence in this remote corner of the globe. 

The nuns and their experiences in this far-off land are what give Black Narcissus its energy, with each sister experiencing a strange combination of sexual repression and spiritual conflict that is compounded by their picturesque environment. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh takes her position quite seriously, yet the beauty of this area reawakens memories of a past romance, which we see several times in flashbacks. As for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), she falls in love with Mr Dean so deeply that she begins to see Sister Clodagh (who deals with Dean on an almost-daily basis) as a potential rival for his affections, and it’s more than her mind can handle. Even Flora Robsen’s Sister Philippa, the oldest in their order, is taken in by the landscape and the simplicity of the people.

The palace that serves as their home also works against them. Built years earlier by the then-Prince for his harem, Sister Clodagh and her order had hoped to transform it into a holy place, an institute of learning and care that would bring the indigenous population closer to God. But the ghosts of the building’s past are strong indeed, causing a spiritual crisis within each and every one of the good sisters. 

The performances are superb, from Deborah Kerr’s controlled yet emotional turn as Sister Clodagh to Kathleen Byron’s occasionally manic take on Sister Ruth. Also quite good in a supporting role is Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl who, after being caught stealing, is brought to the convent and turned over to the sisters. Equally as remarkable is the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his work here. Cardiff shoots a late scene in the bell tower in such a way as to make it positively nerve-racking. Black Narcissus also netted an Academy Award for Alfred Junge’s Art Design and Set Decoration, both of which convince us that we’ve been whisked away to an exotic locale. 

All of these elements - along with a profoundly emotional story - work in unison to make Black Narcissus an undisputed cinematic classic. 
Rating: 10 out of 10 - add it to your collection immediately!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Animation

A trio of Animated Films.

1. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The oldest surviving animated feature-length movie, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a spectacle of the highest order, a film of incredible imagination that, almost 100 years later, is as entertaining as ever. Using her own brand of silhouette animation (in which cardboard and lead cutouts are manipulated, frame by frame), Reiniger relates the amazing story of Prince Achmed, son of the Caliph, who is whisked away to foreign lands by an evil magician’s flying horse. With the Prince out of the way, the Magician intends to kidnap Achmed’s sister Dinarsade and make her his wife. But with the help of a clever witch and Aladdin’s magic lamp, the Prince hopes to not only rescue his sister, but win the heart of Pari Banu, a beautiful island maiden he met during his travels. The fact that The Adventures of Prince Achmed was made in 1926 is itself impressive, but with animation that is so rich, so detailed, this film is an absolute wonder to behold; even the opening sequence, in which Reiniger introduces the main characters, had me in awe. Add to this a jam-packed fantasy tale that features flying horses, demons, and magic lamps, and you have a film that you simply have to see to believe.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Point (1971)

A 1971 TV special (the first animated movie ever to air in prime time on U.S television), The Point is narrated by Ringo Starr (who voiced the home video release; Dustin Hoffman narrated the original broadcast version) and is based on an album of the same name by singer / songwriter Harry Nillson (whose music makes up a large portion of the finished film). In The Point, a father (Starr) tells his son a bedtime story about a young boy named Oblio (voiced by Mike Lookinland, aka Bobby in the popular TV series The Brady Bunch), a round-headed child living in a village of pointy-headed people. As the law of this land states, anyone without a pointed head must be banished forever. So Oblio and his dog Arrow are sent away, and during their travels they encounter a series of strange individuals, all of whom teach Oblio the value of being different. Directed by Fred Wolf, The Point is a curiosity; a breezy, well-paced movie that may look rough around the edges (the animation style is dated), but thanks to some memorable characters (after he’s banished, Oblio meets, among others. a creature made entirely of rocks and a man with three heads) and its timeless message of acceptance, this little oddity still has the power to entertain.
Rating: 7 out of 10

3. When the Wind Blows (1986)

Devastating. Having just watched director Jimmy Murakami’s animated film When the Wind Blows, that’s the only word that comes to mind, the only description I can offer as to how this movie affected me. It is a devastating motion picture. Based on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows is the story of Jim Bloggs (voiced by John Mills) and his wife Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft), an elderly couple that resides in a small village in Sussex, England. The news is reporting that war between the Soviet Union and the west is imminent, and England could be rocked by a nuclear attack at any time. Having picked up several pamphlets the last time he was in town (which offer advice on how to survive a nuclear blast), Jim prepares his humble abode for the impending strike, while Hilda, who remains skeptical that such precautions are even necessary, tries her best to support him. When the bomb does hit, Jim and Hilda remain upbeat, but are they truly prepared to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war? Both Mills and Ashcroft do a masterful job behind the mic, infusing their characters with warmth and personality to spare, and there are moments in When The Wind Blows that will have you laughing out loud (As Jim follows the instructions laid out in the government pamphlets, which includes painting the windows white, Hilda angrily chastises him for making a mess). The animation is also superb, with Murakami employing different visual styles throughout (two brief dreamlike sequences - set to the music of Roger Waters - were really quite brilliant). But it’s the later scenes, when Jim and Hilda show their naiveté, that will stay with you long after When the Wind Blows has ended. Though it’s not an easy film to sit through, I wouldn’t for a minute want to deprive you of the experience.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10